OU geothermal team wins first place in national Department of Energy competition

May 23, 2022

NORMAN, OKLA. – The Sooners Geothermal Team from the University of Oklahoma Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy won first place in a national collegiate competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The OU team designed and proposed a system to repurpose six abandoned oil and gas wells in Shawnee, Oklahoma, to provide clean, renewable geothermal energy for more than 730,449 square feet of educational and municipal buildings, including sites within the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and Potawatomi Nation jurisdiction. By using retired oil wells, the team was able to create a plan that reduces drilling costs to feasibly power local schools, religious centers and government buildings.

Geothermal energy in the United States has historically been relegated to areas of the country with the hottest geothermal activity, states like California, Nevada, Hawaii and Utah, explained OU Geothermal team members Alex Cedola and Cesar Vivas Munar. Oklahoma, they say, has a unique advantage in using geothermal energy. 

“We have an abundance of retired oil assets near populated areas. Because of that, we can compensate for this region’s lower geothermal temperatures with close proximity to end users,” said Vivas Munar.

“Before joining the OU Geothermal team, I did not understand just how closely related geothermal engineering and petroleum engineering are. I am now even more excited to get into the energy industry after I graduate,” said Cedola.

A goal of the Geothermal Collegiate Competition is to inspire students to consider geothermal career opportunities, learn industry-relevant skills and to connect students with their communities. As part of the competition, students assumed the role of project developers, working with communities across the United States. to identify local energy challenges and explore geothermal energy solutions. In addition to technical research, teams conducted an economic feasibility analysis, crafted a strategy for local stakeholder engagement and created geothermal education modules in partnership with local schools.

“Geothermal energy in Oklahoma is a win for everyone,” said Cedola. “It is a clean and abundant source of power. It gives new life to retired oil assets. The cost is reduced because we’re not drilling new wells.” 

The Sooners Geothermal Team is composed of nine graduate and doctoral students in the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy, and is led by Saeed Salehi, an associate professor in the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering. The students are Camila Castillo, Alex Cedola, Karelia La Merca, Abdelmjeed Mohamed, Chinedu Nwosu, Daniel Tetteh, Esteban Ugarte, Cesar Vivas Munar and Yuxing Wu.

The students will share a $10,000 prize and will receive an additional $10,000 University Support prize for planning and implementing stakeholder engagement events with the communities involved in the project. 

Director of the Mewbourne School of Petroleum and Geological Engineering Runar Nygaard said, “The students, under the supervision of Dr. Salehi, have worked hard for this victory and we cannot be prouder of their accomplishment. The Mewbourne School is known for our innovations in geothermal energy. With the upcoming launch of our GeoEnergy Engineering bachelor’s degree, competitions like these only strengthen the opportunities for OU students to prepare to lead in the energy transition.”

The idea of converting retired oil well assets into geothermal wells is also being applied through a separate research endeavor led by Salehi. In that project, geothermal energy is being explored as a source to heat two schools in Tuttle, Oklahoma

“The exciting thing is that we are using petroleum engineering tools, software and knowledge. It is easily transferred into geothermal applications. Our skills are transferable. This is an opportunity for petroleum engineering students, people already in the industry, and energy companies throughout Oklahoma,” said Vivas Munar.

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